Where temptation and curiosity meet vulnerability and naiveness
Artist Felix Treadwell is aware about the vast and powerful world we exist in, and paralleling to this setting, his teenage characters are confronted with a sense of danger – in which they encounter mystical beings and feel guilty for something terrible, yet still go ahead in doing it anyway. The tone of work that Felix is producing for his Degree Show at RCA is getting more obscure, and he’s recently started to bizarrely form text through symbols and forms. The result is a mystical blend of “cute” and “dark” in which vulnerable and youthful characters tap through the different stages of adolescence life. To find out what makes Treadwell’s narrative so engaging, we visited his studio and learned about how he re-processes drawing into new works, which tools he uses to create soft yet physical beings, and even how his creatures and scenery is based on phone emojis.
Felix Treadwell (b. 1992, Maidstone, UK) studied a BA in Painting at Camberwell College of Arts, London and a MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art, London. He has exhibited at L21 Gallery (Mallorca), Union Gallery (London), Nam Project (Milan) and Camberwell Space (London), amongst others. Residencies include the Kyoto Seika University residency in Japan. He has also been awarded the HIX Prize (2015). Felix is currently living and working in London.
Has growing up in a rural town near Brighton fed your characters/narrative? And are these stories growing as you are, adapting to your surroundings and cultural references?
Definitely, all the characters that appeared in my works up until last year were based on people I’d grown up with or seen. The subjects and locations of the works now are mostly the same, but perhaps slightly more ambiguous. I want them to all be relatable in someway.
Your education varies from studying in London, at both Camberwell College of Arts and at The Royal College of Art and in Japan at Kyoto Seika University. How have these culture clashes influenced your practice?
All of the schools have helped me develop my work, and whilst I was only in Japan for around a year, I became friends with Japanese painters and manga artists who definitely had an influence on my practice. The only difference I felt in Japan was the teachers emphasis more on technique rather than the concept first. That approach to painting was definitely refreshing compared to studying in London.
Drawings are significant in both the process of your works – in the form of sketches, and in the final works – in which several of your initial sketches are mounted to create a collaged piece. Can you expand on your use of reprocessing your drawings?
The drawings and sketches have always been crucial to how I make my work, and I’ve always wanted to display them, but struggled to find ways to present them best. Creating collages with the drawings allows me to add narratives and layers between the drawings that also feed into the stories and designs behind the other paintings. I’m interested in their ability to form a new artwork when being combined in a collage – rather than just being archival.
In terms of the configuration of your pieces, the viewers are confronted to read between close ups and cropped-out panels with no apparent order in these arrangements – choosing whether to read the narrative from top to bottom or horizontally. Are you interested in confusing the viewer by using a non-linear rhythm in your compositions?
In the past years, the paintings have followed a conventional panel layout, similar to Western comics, however recently I’ve wanted the works to act more like how you read a painting, being able to approach the work from any part or panel, and work your way through from there, and still make sense.
It seems that your use of the airbrush is very precise and detailed yet uneven at the same time, being a significant instrument in your working process. How and why did you start using this tool?
It’s become an effective way of forming objects and characters in the paintings, allowing me to emphasise forms or subjects using light and shadows, which the airbrush is great at. It also has a softness, which I feel helps the characters feel more vulnerable or tangible.
Apart from the airbrush, you are inclined in using very rustic and traditional mediums such as clay, paper maché, or even wood blocks. Can you tell us about these “machine made” vs. “hand-made” contrasts in your use of mediums?
While the quality of the paintings is very soft, I feel like the world I’m trying to create needs aspects with more physicality, using democratised materials such as paper (paper maché, wooden panels, crates) and clay, materials I’ve used since I was a kid. Trying to depict the symbols and icons from the paintings and drawings with clay and paper can often be challenging, but it sometimes can become more interesting than the drawing/painting was in the first place.
Your works often portray recognisable characters such as Rupert, who is often pointed out as a self-referential figure. Lately, this protagonist is not depicted in your works. Have you decided to kill him? If so, why?
He was fun to portray at the time, but over time I fell out of love with his stories, and felt I need to refresh the world, so I looked at other caricatures I could base the works on. He’s dead for now, but who knows, he may come back. He’s actually got a toy made of him, so I guess thats enough of him for now.
“Using symbols or textures to imply fear and the unknown have helped me get closer to that line between cute and sinister”
Most lately, there is a sense of danger imminent in your works – your characters have become more mystical, and the tonalities used to depict them have become obscurer. Are you interested in exploring the line between “cute” and “dark”?
The teenagers are all supposed to be vulnerable and naive, using symbols or textures to imply fear and the unknown have helped me get closer to that line between cute and sinister tones. The larger world they exist in is vast and powerful, like ours, they are very precarious.
You’ve recently completed your first text-based work. What can you tell us about “It’s So Wrong But Feels So Right”? Does this text-piece serve as a clue of the narrative within your visual works?
Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to add text in the works, but it never worked, and became clunky and jarring. Forming text through symbols and forms has helped me deal with this, also adding a new meaning to the phrases that I’m creating. That particular work was again about temptation and curiosity that the character in the other paintings is going through, that I hope we can all relate to. There’s been something we feel terribly guilty of doing, but we’re going to do it anyway. Take it how you want..
“I want the characters to be surrounded by aspects taken from Internet culture”
We spoke a lot about Internet culture in our recent studio visit. Can you expand on how this culture shapes your practice, and on your use of emojis, for example?
It might not seem clear at first, but nearly all of the creatures and scenery is based on phone emojis. I want the characters to be surrounded by these aspects taken from Internet culture. I guess, its like a reflection of society for teenagers in our time. The symbols of internet culture, whether they’re phone emojis or whatever, interweave with the narratives of the adolescents in the paintings.
You refer to comics as a tool for “creating a world which is believable interesting”. Are your works becoming less about depicting the actual world, and more about exploring dreamlike or surreal settings?
I don’t mind the world becoming more fantastical or surreal, as long as the works can still function to run parallel to our own world, and reflect adolescence in a new way, then I’m happy.
You have recently completed a two-week residency at L21 Gallery, Mallorca, Spain. How have you responded to this setting within your works?
I was working a lot and I hardly had time to leave the studio while there, so unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much. The works were based mostly on drawings I made in the few weeks prior to going to Mallorca. It was great to meet the director, Oscar Florit, as we had some good and honest chats about what was and wasn’t working in the paintings, and what would feel right for the show and the space.
You are currently preparing for your MA Painting degree show at the Royal College of Art. How has your work developed during your time at the RCA, and what are the next projects in mind once you finalise your degree show?
Its been really helpful studying at the RCA. Before I started, I had no idea what I wanted to make and had no confidence showing my works to people. Making friends there with other students and tutors has helped me push myself, allowing myself to take risks and experiment with new materials and media. It was tough at times, but you learn from that, and it will help push your work further. After the Degree Show I have no idea, I’m still making the final painting for it! I’ll let you know when I’m there!
Words by Vanessa Murrell